Signs point to anemic turnout in Md. primary Gubernatorial races, White House scandal may affect voter interest

Campaign 1998

September 13, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith and Thomas W. Waldron | C. Fraser Smith and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

With a festively decorated trolley, the return of funny hats and threats of dire consequences for those who stay at home, office seekers in Maryland are hoping they can produce a respectable turnout for Maryland's primary elections Tuesday.

The voters may not cooperate, however.

"They're not excited, that's for sure," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, "and this thing that's going on with the president doesn't help us at all."

The absence of closely contested gubernatorial primaries leaves McFadden and other Democrats worried that core groups will boycott not just the primary, but the Nov. 3 general election. The East Baltimore Democrat fears President Clinton's imperiled presidency will further dispirit the electorate.

The voting Tuesday will be a gauge of how disaffected voters are. Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, joins those who predict an anemic showing by voters. But he cautions that rapid change in the economic and political spheres could have an impact, positive or negative, on turnout.

"The economy is on an unbelievable roller coaster, and I think the Clinton-Lewinsky issue could make pollsters a doomed profession," Haller said. "It's very hard to try to predict public opinion changes on such a volatile issue."

Across Maryland, several hotly contested General Assembly races and some battles for local offices may produce brisk voting in parts of Baltimore and in Prince George's, Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore counties.

But the lack of a riveting primary race for governor almost guarantees a low turnout, said Democratic Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg of Baltimore. "My ego learned a long time ago that a contested race for the House of Delegates or the state Senate is not what turns people out," he said.

Maryland's top elections official, Linda H. Lamone, predicted a 35 percent turnout -- down from 40 percent in 1994, but up slightly from 1990, when the figure was 33 percent.

As summer campaigning ends, Republicans are feeling more optimistic than Democrats.

"Over the course of the past couple of weeks," said Jim Dornan, press secretary for Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, "I've seen our supporters re-energized." In other words, bad news for Clinton and the Democrats may be good news for the GOP.

Grateful for Schaefer

Democrats find themselves grateful for the zest and color of a proven winner on their ballot: William Donald Schaefer, former governor and Baltimore mayor, brought an infusion of excitement to an election badly in need of one. Schaefer is running for state comptroller, a post held for 40 years by the late Louis L. Goldstein.

He and Glendening have posed together wearing goofy hats and the two men have begun campaigning together. At a rally last Wednesday in Towson, Schaefer implored a small audience to do its duty.

"I've heard people say, 'I'm not going to vote in this election.' That's wrong. Absolutely wrong," Schaefer said. "Someone is going to win. Someone will be governor. Someone will be county executive. Someone will be comptroller. Don't stay at home and say, 'Well, I don't like what's going on.' It's imperative. Get out and vote and bring another voter with you."

In Howard County, Republican state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe worries that voters' reluctance to participate on primary day could carry over into the general election. He plans to hand out "thank you for participating" fliers that invite people to remember him Nov. 3.

Democrat Elizabeth Bobo, who represents a liberal Howard County district in the House of Delegates, said the president's difficulties have produced a level of confusion -- but few true dropouts. "Yeah, they're turned off," she said. "They're very disturbed by the president, but does that mean they want to see him impeached? No. And I'm not hearing a lot of people say they won't vote."

'It's quiet'

In Rosedale and Dundalk, Democratic Del. John S. Arnick, says he hears virtually nothing. "It's quiet," he said -- not a good sign.

Usually, a primary generates excitement, activity, visible campaigning. This year, he said, there's little inclination to credit government for new and renovated schools in the district, new community centers and sound barriers along highways.

Democrats are not concerned about the outcome of the primary, which Glendening should win easily over two others on the ballot. Of these, Davidsonville physician Terry McGuire has put on the most energetic campaign -- but he had the support of 7 percent of those polled in a recent survey conducted for The Sun and other news organizations.

False security

Prospects for a competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary disappeared in August with the withdrawal of Howard County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, though her name will appear on the ballot. Her challenge may have left a mark on the voters' consciousness nonetheless: McFadden says her withdrawal may have left Glendening supporters believing the governor is secure without their votes.

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